Monday, August 6, 2012

The Young Henry Jones Jr. -- A Perfunctory Prologue Lesson

My hero.
Saturday afternoon. Too hot outside for gardening or … well, pretty much anything. So I sat down with a cold drink, some chips and salsa, and one of my all-time favorite movies: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

(Confession time: I want to write like these movies. All action, adventure, ridiculous life or death scenarios, and a hero in a cool hat. But I digress…)

You know the movie, right? It starts off with a bunch of Scouts taking a trail ride in the desert…where we quickly realize we are going to be treated to a glimpse of Indy’s boyhood. Whoever cast River Phoenix as the young Indiana Jones was brilliant, in my humble opinion. (Digressing again, aren’t I? Sorry.)

This flashback beginning bit doesn’t make the plot of the Last Crusade move forward; however, at this point in the movie series, these cinematic prologue does a couple of things: it pulls us into the fictional world of Indiana Jones, while at the same time giving us information about HOW and WHY he is who he is.

Ahhh, youth.
Remember: this is the third movie, so by now, Indy is a well-known and well-loved character in pop culture. We all know a lot about what he does and we have come to expect him to behave in certain ways. In fact, we know him so well, we don’t even need to see his face. All we need to see is that hat. Better yet, the hat paired with the whip. Or hear his theme song. No actual Indy required to know you are about to have a Raiders of the Lost Ark type experience.

And the second thing (the real beauty of the boy scout prologue) – now that we know about the adult adventurous Indy, a glimpse backward shows us how he came to be. That prologue gives us an enormous insight into his character in just those few minutes. The climb into the cave, sending a friend for the police, stealing the priceless artifact (Coronado’s cross) out from under the professional treasure hunters, the chase on horseback and the circus train, all culminating at his Father’s doorstep. Seriously…we find out how he gets his first hat, why he carries the whip everywhere he goes, why he hates snakes. We get a peek into what drives his love of history and why he lives to bring priceless artifacts to museums for safekeeping. We even find out how he gets the rakish scar on his chin, for heaven’s sake.

The nearly unbelievable situations started at a very young age for our hero. Of course they did! This is the world of Indiana Jones, people! Where a bag of sand might save your life or trigger a booby trap. Where knowing that being penitent means to “kneel before God.” Where diving into a magician’s box on a moving train might be the only way to save Coronado’s treasured gold cross. And where struggling with a bad guy on the roof of a moving train can only be stopped by nearly being impaled by a rhino’s horn!

This movie prologue ties us back to what we already know about Indiana Jones before the newest story even begins. It reminds us of his faults, his flaws, and his desires – and sets us up for the conflict (which we already knew back when we bought the popcorn): a search for an historical artifact of unbelievable value – and Indy’s attempt to do what is right above all else.

So here’s what I’d like to know: What is the best prologue example you’ve seen in young adult or middle grade novels? What about prologues in your writing? Do you use them or not? Why or why not?

While you’re thinking that over… I’ll pop more corn and settle in for another chapter of Indy and his hat. Gotta love that hat.